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The Position of Employer in the Family Unit

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18th Mar 2013
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A person’s primary social group is called their family unit. The family unit traditionally includes parents and children; some will include grandparents and wider relatives. Close friends will be included in a minority but the family unit is typically populated by blood relatives only.

The workplace has been historically outside the family unit. Work divides the family unit until the work day is over: it’s something to be tolerated and performed in order to benefit the family.

This viewpoint is driven by a physical separation of personal and professional spheres. Work takes place in a separate location and requires the worker to actively leave their family. It requires a different set of clothes. It requires a shift in persona. It requires the worker to chase goals not associated with family life: profit and clean inboxes rather than marital happiness, independent children and a happy home. This influences the emotional level. Work and home become separate things in the mind.

That’s the employee’s view of things. For the business, prevailing economic theory prioritises workplace efficiency and there’s a perception that family life is incompatible with business goals – that’s why workers are actively encouraged not to ‘bring personal problems into the workplace.’

All this explains why the workplace has traditionally been firmly outside the family unit. This, of course, is set to change.

As HR becomes more analytics-driven and looks to take action on negative metrics including attrition rate and non-engaged employees, the separation between family and workplace will draw increased attention. Employees will demand more from their employment and these new requirements will draw heavily from what they want from their personal lives – where the family unit is paramount.

They’ll look for jobs aligned to their personal beliefs and family goals. They’ll increasingly look for employers that provide benefits that not only help them but their families as well, such as life assurance policies. They won’t want to go to work and strive to make money at all costs and then go home to teach their children about ethics.

And if work takes away their ability to contribute to the family unit (e.g. because of stress or lengthy working hours), they’ll be gone. This is why flexible working and home working – a focus on the goals rather than the means – are becoming more topical. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Whether now or in the future, businesses will need to ask: how can the workplace play a greater part in family life and how can this benefit the employee and the bottom line?

How do we get there?

Sustainability is hugely important because it mirrors many of the qualities inherent to family life – such as thinking about others, the social community, and the environment. Businesses are beginning to see the value to employee retention in using the corporate vehicle to drive positive environmental and social change as well as profit. This will change the perception of the workplace to a ‘caring’ environment, aligning it more closely with the family unit.

Most workers don’t mind businesses chasing profit – it’s when they do it unethically, or at the expense of social goals, that it draws disdain.

Support is also key – people expect to receive support from the family unit. One of the things employees don’t like about the workplace is that the jovial atmosphere quickly disappears once things ‘get serious’ – if they are under investigation or being disciplined, for example. It becomes an ‘us’ v ‘them’ culture, something fundamentally at odds with the unconditional support associated with the family unit. Managers must be on the employee’s side, trying to find external reasons for unwanted behaviour and working with the employee to improve the situation.

As the business environment becomes more aligned with the family unit, HR will face many challenges:

  • Tying performance with rewardperformance management will need to be reconsidered as traditional metrics – such as working hours and profit – become out-of-date
  • Communication channels – the family unit allows free communication that doesn’t come back to bite in future. HR must replicate this in a law-compliant way
  • Building the business case – greater integration with family life will be a tough pill for profit-driven executives to swallow. HR must ensure the ROI is there
  • Finding the sweet spot – the right level of integration with the family unit will be hard to find. Too much is interference, too little will go unnoticed/unappreciated
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